Intimate Apparel

Intimate Apparel

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Red Hot, 2005; cotton, acrylics, gold leaf, wax, metal, rubber, matchsticks; 25 x 12 x 11 in.

Petronella Ytsma

Each of Erica Spitzer Rasmussen's sculptural garments ­- from ethereal kimonos to provocative bustiers - is a personal tale made tangible.

Erica Spitzer Rasmussen is a teller of stories - but her medium isn't language. Her vehicle of choice is the female body and the clothes that women wear. To tell her tales, the Twin Cities-based artist constructs dresses, kimonos, bustiers, and collars from fabric or cast handmade paper, often lacing pieces together with linen or silk thread, jute, or flax. She then embellishes the surfaces with unorthodox materials such as human hair, tea bags, animal fur, and sundried tomatoes. "I don't use standard art-store materials," she says. "Mine are very personal and unusual."

As personal as her stories: Rasmussen's narrative works aren't fictional tales, after all, but intimate expressions that give physical form to abstract, universal subjects including ancestry, illness, pregnancy, and death. Silent Harvest, a work in progress, is an armless dress form, hips to neck. Built from cast paper painted gold and sheathed in dehydrated apricots, the figure has an opening in the front, revealing a Star of David in the dark interior, where the heart should be.

She began the piece after a recent visit to Vienna with her father and son. A side trip took them to the picturesque Austrian village of Spitz, known for its apricot orchards, and the source of her maiden name. Not a trace of her Jewish past was to be found, not even in the cemetery, where only Christian names marked the graves. "I'm giving my vanished ancestors a voice again," she says. "Silent Harvest is a marker, a memorial to my family."

Born in Iowa and raised in Minneapolis, Rasmussen lives with her husband, who's a painter, and their 6-year-old son just outside St. Paul. Her studio is in the basement of their home. On shelves, in drawers, and in boxes is her cache of meticulously archived raw materials: dried fish skins, rusty bottle caps, silk suture thread, tomato paste, buffalo fur, watermelon seeds. Though modest in size, the well-lit workspace is convenient. "The commute is very easy," she jokes.

Yet travel is central to her practice, as demonstrated by her trip to Austria, where she did a residency at Vienna's PapierWespe. In the past decade alone, Rasmussen has traveled to Puerto Rico, England, Italy, Canada, and around the United States to research materials, clothing styles, and cultural practices, as well as to exhibit her work. Travel also enriches her 14-year teaching career at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, where she is now an associate professor, teaching art appreciation, bookbinding, and papermaking. In Minneapolis, she teaches youths and adults at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts.

Ostensibly, Rasmussen's sculptures are wearable art, yet few pieces actually can be worn because of the fragility of materials and construction. She plans to wear A Coat for Two Occasions (2000), however, for her cremation. Made from joss paper, flax, cotton thread, rayon, walnut stain, and acrylics, the silver-gold kimono's title refers to the Chinese funeral ritual of burning sheets of joss to propitiously send off the deceased into the afterlife. By wearing the kimono after her own death, Rasmussen figures she'll relieve attendees of the task. "I'm trying to bring a little humor and beauty to the inevitable," she says, admitting her fear of dying. "Besides, you have to wear something."

She often relies on a bit of humor to balance the seriousness of her work. One of her now-signature cast-paper bustiers, Red Hot (2005) celebrates the conception of her son after she struggled with years of infertility. Humble it is not. The glistening gold bustier is covered in red-tipped matchsticks that project from its surface like quills of a porcupine. Dangling from each side of the pelvic area - on fishing lures - are two orbs with tassels, also exploding with matchsticks. (One can guess which part of the artist's anatomy they represent.) Alluring yet thorny, Red Hot is an unabashed metaphor for the heated act of procreation.

The more recent Patch and Repair (2010) is a '50s-style drop-waist dress with a box-pleated skirt made of examination table paper painted black and covered with polka-dots; on closer inspection, the dots reveal themselves as spot bandages. The dress is a re-creation of her mother's warning on her 40th birthday: "After 40, dear, it's all patch and repair."

For Rasmussen, making art is a cathartic experience that allows her to explore her ideas about life and its inevitable travails. And though her aesthetic is hers alone, her practice links her to the millennia-old tradition of people making objects to cope with the unpredictable milestones from birth to death. The tactile, visceral nature of her materials simply magnifies the human need to tell stories. "The best work causes people to think and feel," says the artist, holding a bag of apricots. "That's what I try to do."


Mason Riddle writes on visual arts, crafts, architecture, and design. She is based in St. Paul.